We all have different rituals that help us to concentrate on the task at hand.
Some people spend hours organizing and reorganizing their desk or house, and others swear by absolute silence when they are working.
If you are looking for ways to increase your concentration, and therefore your productivity, you may have overlooked an important tool: ambient music.
There is a growing scientific consensus that listening to ambient music can significantly increase concentration levels.
The way that this works has been researched extensively over the past few years, as have some techniques for maximizing the productivity gain of listening to ambient music.
How It Works
Club DJs have long known that there is a direct link between the tempo and rhythm of a piece of music and the mindset of their audience.
In a nightclub environment, the tempo of music is designed to match the heart rate of the dancers, starting slow to get everybody warmed up, before building to a peak of excitement.
The same technique can be used to help you concentrate. By subconsciously imposing a rhythm on your work, ambient music can keep your mind and body in a state of relaxed alertness, which is perfect for staying concentrated for long periods.
Research studies from as far back as 1972 have found that playing background music during the performance of repetitive work significantly increased productivity.
This study was performed on factory workers who were required to perform repetitive tasks, and found that even when played over the otherwise distracting noise of factory machines, workers were happier, and found it easier to concentrate, when ambient music was played.
There have been more recent studies that have sought to explain this effect. The outcome of these studies, and the current thinking in this area, is that it is actually the “happiness” created by listening to certain forms of ambient music that leads to better concentration and productivity gains.
This research found that dissonant music had little to no effect on the ability of test subjects to concentrate, as would be expected. However, when test subjects were played music in major keys, their productivity increased significantly.
This suggests, as I will explain below, that what you should look for when choosing music to work to are pieces that you enjoy, as the dopamine and serotonin boost produced by listening to them will really help you concentrate.
Further research has investigated the effects of volume level on concentration and productivity. Researchers have found that, no matter what kind of music you listen to, if it is too loud it will distract you from your work.
Even if you love the track, and even if it has a relaxing tempo and rhythm, it will impose too much upon your consciousness if it is too loud.
And, last but not least, research has found that even the instruments and tone of ambient music has effects on concentration and productivity levels.
It seems that “natural” sounds help in this regard — this study found that the sound of waves breaking on a beach were particularly effective at improving concentration.
So, while you may love the sound of screeching synths, it is probably best to avoid that type of music while working.
How to Use Ambient Music to Help You Concentrate
All this research suggests that ambient music can have a significant impact on concentration levels.
However, it is not enough to simply find a piece of slow music, stick it on, and hope. There are a few things that must be kept in mind if you are planning on using ambient music in this way. Let me take you through them, step by step:
1. Choose music you like
It might sound obvious, but make sure you actually like the music you are using. We all have different tastes when it comes to music, and a piece that works for one person may actually end up just annoying you.
Luckily, there is no lack of variety when it comes to ambient tracks to choose from, so it should be relatively easy for you to find a piece of ambient music that you like.
2. Choose the right kind of music
Whilst it is important to find music that you like, most of us have a fairly wide range of preferences, so it is worth giving some thought to what style of music you listen to.
It is best to avoid music with lyrics, because your brain will automatically focus on the words being sung, and for this reason many people prefer classical music while working.
3. Listen on the right equipment
This is something that is often overlooked. Nothing is as distracting as a bad hi-fi, which distorts the music you are listening to. My advice would actually be to get a decent pair of headphones.
Not only do headphones allow you to achieve good sound quality for a modest price, they also have the advantage of blocking out other sources of ambient noise, which can be distracting in themselves.
4. Notice the changes, and be adaptable
Though the advice above is based on the best scientific research available at the moment, nothing beats your own experience. One piece of ambient music, or one method of listening to it, will not work for everyone.
For this reason, try a few different things out, and note whether your concentration or productivity levels increase. If you find something that works, stick to it until it no longer does so.
Follow these steps, and you should see significant gains in your concentration levels and productivity.
While introducing a new element into your work environment — in this case, ambient music — may seem like you are merely bringing in more distractions for yourself, after a few days you should begin to see improvements.
Even the slight morale boost that is created by listening to a favourite track will help you to enjoy your work, and ultimately increase your motivation.